Biceps brachii, the sommelier’s muscle

biceps brachii, the sommelier's muscle

Probably you’ve heard of the “biceps”, but you might not have thought of it as the “sommelier’s muscle”!  And yet, the action of opening a wine bottle sums up the two major actions of this muscle.

But first of all, be warned that you have a biceps muscle in your thigh as well — so to be clear, the biceps in your arm is called biceps brachii (“two-headed muscle of the arm”).

The biceps brachii attaches to your forearm on the anterior side, and thus flexes the elbow — pulling the forearm toward the shoulder, and thus folding your upper limb in two.  But it also supinates the forearm — this is a rotational action that twists the forearm (and the hand with it) from a “palm backward” (or downward) position to a “palm forward” (or upward) position.

Supination has many uses, such as turning your cupped hands upward to “drink soup“, begging for mercy as you “supplicate”, or perhaps even expressing a certain attitude with “…’sup bro!” — and these can be helpful mnemonics for remembering this action.

The reason for this lesser-known action of the biceps brachii is that the muscle attaches to the inner surface of the radius (of the two long bones in your forearm, this is the one that sits on the lateral or thumb side).  As the muscle contracts, that surface is pulled toward the shoulder, rotating the radius laterally, which carries the hand with it.

When opening a wine bottle, supination is used to twist the corkscrew clockwise, inserting it into the cork.  This is followed by flexion at the elbow, as you pull the cork out of the bottle.  Be mindful, though, that this only works with your right hand!  Supination with your left hand achieves the opposite, which is helpful at the end — twisting counterclockwise, to get that corkscrew out of the cork.

Latissimus dorsi, the swimmer’s muscle

Latissimus dorsi, the swimmer's muscle

The latissimus dorsi, or “lat” for short, is often referred to as the “swimmer’s muscle”.  It’s the prime mover of arm extension — meaning it does most of the work when you bring your arm back from a forward position.  Such a movement is especially useful in swimming, because by pushing back against the water, it propels the body forward.  To see a well-developed latissimus dorsi, just visit your local swimming pool and look for someone who just swam some “laps” with their “lats”.  You can also use this muscle for pull-ups, or striking a blow with a hammer, but I’d prefer to let mine carry me across a coral reef.

The many faces of areolar connective tissue

The many faces of areolar connective tissue

Areolar connective tissue, like connective tissues in general, holds us together.  Like all connective tissues, it contains a lot of nonliving material — the extracellular matrix.  In this case the matrix is loose and unspecialized, with a large amount of interstitial fluid, making it an ideal “filler” between many structures in the body.  In particular, it is found on the back side of almost every epithelium in the body, including the lining of blood vessels.  As a result, every molecule that crosses between the blood and surrounding tissues, has to diffuse across areolar connective tissue — the “middleman” of exchange.

Epithelia line not just the blood vessels, but every other surface and cavity of the body.  This means they can function not only as an exchange surface, but also a barrier to microorganisms.  Here again, areolar connective tissue plays a vital role — as the “second line of defense”, harboring immune cells that attack any invaders that breach our defenses.

I’ve already paid homage to some of our other connective tissues.  The dense connective tissues are distinguished by large amounts of collagen, making them strong, though flexible.  Bone tissue contains a rigid mineral component making it an ideal structural support.  Areolar connective tissue, by comparison, is weak and shapeless.  But this unpretentious mass of matrix and cells is arguably even more important for our survival.

Large intestine — gotta stay hydrated

large intestine gotta stay hydrated

In a cast of organs that so far includes the pancreas, heart, pharynx, and assorted smaller beings, this week we’ll look at the large intestine.

First,  let’s set the record straight:  The only thing large about this intestine is its width — it needs a spacious interior, to accommodate the slowly desiccating remains of your meal.  By far the longest part of your intestines is the small intestine — the site where the great preponderance of digestion and nutrient absorption occur in the body.

What’s passed on to the large intestine is a soggy slurry of undigestible food bits — especially the undigestible long-chain carbohydrates known as “fiber”.  What remains of value in this mix is water and electrolytes (such as sodium and potassium), which the large intestine absorbs.

Don’t be misled, though — the large intestine is vital for your survival.  All the organs of the digestive system from the mouth to the small intestine secrete large amounts of fluid.  These secretions add digestive enzymes and other additives to process the food.  Enough fluid is released in this way, that you’d quickly dehydrate, without the large intestine’s help.  Indeed, the inability to absorb fluids in the large intestine, resulting in watery feces, or diarrhea, is a deadly condition that kills millions every year.

Incidentally, the mouth of our thirsty friend is accurately placed — it represents the opening where the small intestine attaches, and thus, releases its slushy contents into the large intestine.  At that junction, an ileocecal valve prevents backflow of feces into the small intestine.  Other parts are (more or less) anatomically correct as well — from the portly cecum (shown as the “body” of our absorptive acquaintance), and a tail-like vermiform appendix, through the ascending colon, transverse colon, descending colon, sigmoid colon (the S-shaped “zigzag” near the end), rectum, and anal canal.  The end!

The cerebellum — an athlete and a scholar

Cerebellum, athlete and scolar

The cerebellum, once thought to be simply a motor coordination center, is now understood to participate in both cognitive and emotional processing.  Somewhat resembling the cerebrum (with lobes and a highly folded cortex), but far smaller, it was given the name cerebellum meaning “little brain”.  After early studies showed its obvious role in motor coordination, the cerebellum was type-cast as a dedicated motor processor.

Even on a purely anatomical level, the cerebellum is an amazing structure.  While making up only 11% of the brain’s mass, it contains about half of all neurons in the brain.  It achieves this phenomenal density with vast numbers of tiny neurons called granule cells.  Indeed, their small size and density has slowed progress by making it difficult to record the activity of individual cells.  On the tissue level, the cerebellum has an impressively regular organization that’s suggestive of a printed circuit board.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that new research implicates the cerebellum as a “calculator”, not just for motor coordination, but in other roles.  A study last year (summarized here) showed greater involvement between the cerebellum and cognitive centers, lending credence to the notion that it plays  a general role in “quality control”, not just in movement but in thinking.  And a paper earlier this year (summarized here) showed powerful control by the cerebellum over an emotional reward center in the brain, thus controlling behavior.  Other studies have suggested roles for the cerebellum in autism and schizophrenia.  With this recent “sprint” in research, the cerebellum has begun to earn new respect.

 

 

 

 

Hepatocyte, Jack of 500 trades

hepatocyte, jack of 500 trades

Our largest internal organ, the liver, is also one of the most versatile — it performs over 500 different functions.  Virtually all its functions are performed by hepatocytes (literally, “liver cells”).  Here, one of the liver’s 200 billion hepatocytes looms greatly enlarged, busily carrying out five of these vital functions — represented by familiar visual metaphors.

  • Conversion of protein (and other compounds) to glucose — a group of processes known as gluconeogenesis.  Here, a ham (high in protein content) is converted to some candies (mostly sugar).
  • Glucose storage and release — the conversion of glucose to glycogen (and  back again) — plays a major role in the regulation of blood sugar levels.  (Here, glycogen is represented as a slice of bread — not quite glycogen, but it’s made of starch, another long-chain carbohydrate.)
  • Secretion of bile, containing among its components bile salts, molecules that bind to fats on one side, and water on the other.  In doing so, they stabilize — in other words, emulsify — small drops of fat, making them more available for efficient enzymatic digestion.  The green dish detergent is an apt metaphor in two ways.  First, it works much the same way as bile salts, emulsifying the grease on your dishes so it can be washed away.  Second, bile is in fact green!  The color comes from bilirubin, another component of bile, which serves to excrete broken down red blood cells and has a strong color (which changes depending on the exact compound) owing to its iron content.
  • Secretion of blood proteins, such as albumins — represented here by egg whites (which do contain albumins as a major component).  Among other roles, blood proteins modify the osmotic balance of your blood, preventing it from losing too much fluid in your capillary beds.
  • Metabolism of drugs and poisons, typically converting them into a form that can be more easily excreted by the kidney into the urine.

Smooth muscle, ace of tubes

Smooth muscle, ace of tubes

What’s your favorite muscle tissue?  Odds are you’ll say skeletal muscle, the type used in all voluntary movements.  Or, you might be partial to cardiac muscle, the main tissue component of your heart.  But there’s much to appreciate in the third muscle tissue, smooth muscle.  It’s a major component of your tubular organs – those of the digestive, urinary, reproductive, and respiratory systems, as well as your blood vessels – and for good reason.

The name “smooth muscle” refers to the lack of striations – the stripes visible on skeletal and cardiac muscle cells.  Those stripes reflect a highly regular, organized arrangement of protein filaments that give great strength and efficiency to striated muscle tissues.  But it comes at a cost – if you overstretch a skeletal or cardiac muscle cell, it becomes completely unable to contract.  That’s because muscle contraction depends on the sliding of myosin and actin filaments past one another.  Without any overlap to start with, the myosin molecules have nothing to grab onto.

Smooth muscle gets around this problem with a loose, net-like arrangement of myosin and actin.  When the cell is stretched, this network starts to straighten out, which means each group of myosin and actin suffers little tension.  The result is that much more overlap is maintained and these cells remain functional.

Why is this so important for a tubular organ?  Many of your tubes undergo stretching – think of your stomach after a big meal — which in turn, stretches the muscle cells.  But many other tubular organs undergo fluctuations in diameter, and smooth muscle allows them to contract under a wide variety of conditions.

Smooth muscle is also the only type of muscle cell that can divide after birth – a crucial feature in repairing a damaged wall after the passage of a chicken bone or a kidney stone.  Also, blood vessels can grow and change shape in response to changing demands – made possible by the production of new smooth muscle tissue.

Let’s give smooth muscle a little respect.  It may lack obvious “sex appeal” at first.  But considering smooth muscle makes up a big part of your reproductive organs, maybe it’s the “sexiest” muscle tissue of all!

Dense connective tissue — diverse hardware for the body machine

Dense connective tissues

If bones are the “steel frame” of the body and cartilage forms the “rubber shock absorbers” between your bones, what name do we give for all the nuts, bolts, stitches, pulleys, cords, housings, laces, bindings, springs and bungees that connect our parts together?

These tough, durable attachment structures are provided by the dense connective tissues of the body.  Like connective tissues in general, these tissues have few living cells (here, fibroblasts, shown traveling among the fibers).  But in contrast to other connective tissues, the word “dense” here refers to an especially high density of collagen fibers.  Collagen fibers provide a strong “steel cable” that is difficult to tear apart, and thus is used to provide tension resistance in body tissues.  Collagen is such an important structural component that it makes up 25% of body protein – your most abundant protein of all.

There are three types of dense connective tissue:

  • In dense irregular connective tissue, the collagen fibers lie in all different directions. This type is useful in tissues that are subject to unpredictable forces.  The deep part of your skin (dermis) is a good example – there’s no telling what part of your face your grandma is going to pinch, and in what direction!  This type also forms a fibrous capsule around joints and various organs.
  • In dense regular connective tissue, the collagen fibers are all lined up together, providing tremendous strength against tension, but only in one direction. It’s the tissue used in our tendons – cord-like structures that attach a muscle to a bone and allow the muscle to pull on the bone.  It’s also used by ligaments – cord-like structures that attach one bone to another, and prevent the two bones from being ripped apart from each other.
  • In elastic connective tissue, we also find a high density of collagen, but with an important difference. Large numbers of elastic fibers dominate the behavior of the tissue.  The result is like an elastic band — you can stretch it, but when you let go, it recoils right back to its original shape.  It’s an important component of arteries, allowing them to stretch when the blood pressure varies.  It also allows your lungs to exhale without using any energy, saving energy in ventilation.  There are also elastic ligaments in your neck that give your head a little bounce when you start to fall asleep in class — perhaps saving you from injury, while providing the rest of the class with an entertaining demonstration!

A bottle model to explain lung ventilation and pneumothorax

bottle model of lung ventilation and pneumothorax

To understand how your lungs work, you need to understand how they function within the context of your chest, or thorax.  In other words, your lungs don’t work within a vacuum.  Wait — correction — your lungs DO work within a vacuum!  (Well, almost a vacuum.)  That’s because in order for your lungs to expand, there needs to be low pressure between the lungs and the wall of the thorax.

It’s easy to make a simple model to demonstrate how breathing works.  Take a large soda bottle and cut off the bottom.  Replace the bottom with a flexible rubber sheet from the hardware store, to represent the diaphragm, and attach it securely to the bottle using a rubber band or super glue. To represent a lung, you take a party balloon, insert it into the top of the balloon, and stretch the opening of the balloon over the bottle to attach it securely.

To inhale, pull down on the diaphragm.  This increases the volume of the space between the bottle and the balloon, decreasing its pressure as a result.  That space represents the pleural cavity, which is a very narrow space in the healthy human body but plays a crucial role in ventilation.  When the chest expands, the lungs expand only because the pleural cavity is “vacuum sealed”.  Its low pressure counteracts the natural tendency of the lung tissues to recoil.  Thus, when the chest expands, the lung expands as well, and air is sucked into the lung.

The “vacuum seal” of the pleural cavity can be broken if the chest wall is perforated (such as by a bullet or knife wound).  It can also happen if only the lung itself is damaged (which can sometimes be caused by physical trauma).  In either case, when you attempt to breathe by expanding the thorax, air quickly enters the pleural cavity, where you don’t want it to be.  This condition is known as pneumothorax (“air within the thorax”).  Without the near-vacuum in your pleural cavity, there is nothing to keep your lung expanded and it collapses.

To represent pneumothorax in the “bottle model”, you can poke a hole either in the side of the bottle, or in the balloon itself — you’ll find that the balloon no longer expands.  When I present this model to my class, I ask my students to imagine this last step.  I’m always very excited (as shown above) just to get the thing working at all, so I’ll be darned if I’m going to poke any holes in it!

How muscles work

muscle contraction

Here’s how we move, using the elbow as an example.  A muscle is attached to the bones on either side of your elbow joint.  Inside the muscle, proteins called myosin (red), which are arranged in tiny rows called thick filaments, have little arms that reach out and grab onto proteins called actin (blue), which are arranged in tiny rows called thin filaments.  Alternately grabbing, pulling, and releasing, the myosin, like a tug-of-war team, brings the actin on one side closer to the actin on the other side.  The shortening of the muscle, which results from this sliding filament mechanism, is called muscle contraction.  Because the muscle is attached to each bone by a tendon, the bones are pulled together and the elbow bends.

This arrangement of proteins, like a stack of flattened hexagons, is called a sarcomere.  It’s the “functional unit” of muscle contraction, meaning that in theory, if a muscle had just one sarcomere like in the cartoon, it would still work.

That’s the simple version.

The molecules, of course, are shown greatly enlarged.  To maximize efficiency, the muscle has an intricate structure of repeating units that will make your head spin.  Sarcomeres are attached end-to-end (about 10,000 per inch) to form contractile rods called myofibrils, and myofibrils are stacked side-by-side to fill each muscle cell, which is also known as a muscle fiber.  A unique feature of skeletal muscle tissue (the type that can be voluntarily controlled, as in the example) is that the individual cells are extremely long – almost as long as the muscle itself!  So a muscle in the arm has “only” around 250,000 muscle fibers – far fewer than the billions of cells one normally finds in an organ.  The extreme length of our skeletal muscle cells probably makes them quicker and more efficient.

Now let’s consider the entire muscle again.  Its whole purpose is to move a bone through space.  To do this, it has to have a stable attachment at one end, called the origin.  When the muscle contracts, the other attachment, known as the insertion, is moved closer to the origin, and this is what bends your elbow.  Within the muscle, all of the sarcomeres are shortening at once, but the ones closest to the origin are hardly moving at all.  Meanwhile the sarcomeres near the insertion are moving rapidly, pulled by the cumulative efforts of all the myosin molecules further up the myofibril, allowing the muscle to win the “tug of war” against gravity.